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Manitoba History: Review: Nancy Christie and Michael Gauvreau, A Full-Orbed Christianity: The Protestant Churches and Social Welfare in Canada, 1900-1940

by Thomas H. McLeod
Victoria, BC

Number 39, Spring / Summer 2000

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct all inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

Nancy Christie and Michael Gauvreau, A Full-Orbed Christianity: The Protestant Churches and Social Welfare in Canada, 1900-1940. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press. 1996, ISBN 0773513973, $29.95.

The claim registered on the dust jacket of “A Full-Orbed Christianity: The Protestant Churches and Social Welfare in Canada, 1900-1940,” somewhat outruns the book’s substance. The exposition is limited essentially to an exploration of the Methodist, the Presbyterian, and later the United Church communions. At best, passing attention is given to whatever parallels may have emerged in other Protestant denominations. The main thrust of the argument is directed to the shaping of a new, revitalized social evangelism, designed in the words of the authors, to “unite evangelism and social service.” A course was to be set, which, while retaining the commitment and much of the fervor of earlier evangelism and revivalism, would shift “the cultural emphasis of Canada’s Protestant churches from the preservation of a sound theology to a social action designed to address the problems of a nation in the process of transformation.”

The champions of this new evangelism sought a return to a “saving faith” that would redirect concern from narrow, intellectual sermonizing as taught in the theological colleges. In expounding the Gospel, without denying preparation for the hereafter, greater emphasis was to be placed on the immediate human condition, on the demands of the here and now. A Social Christianity in its evangelical pronouncements was to centre on the call to Christians to dedicate themselves anew to the business of responding to human needs arising from flaws in the social system, and to the task of working to bring into being God’s kingdom on earth.

Much effort is devoted to noting and defending what seems to be regarded as the accepted, if not the official position of Protestantism at least as held in two of its denominations. But herein lies a major difficulty in following the argument: Who and what actually represents “the church.” These denominations are organizationally complex; discussion here is focussed primarily on actions and pronouncements of central elements of the organizations, and even here on the Secretaries of the Departments. What contemporaneously took place in far-out reaches of the country and its congregations is considered and interpreted largely in terms of reactions (or lack of reactions) to the direction—one is even tempted to say would-be dictates of head-office.

If the new crusade was, in reality “to address the problems of a nation in the process of transformation,” it must be said that limited effort is expended in exploring the nature and meaning of that process of transformation, or the implications for a meaningful Social Gospel. Rather, the exposition seems caught in something of a time warp. The decades that frame the study were years of almost continuous and often troublesome change and readjustment.

Central to any reinterpretation of Social Christianity was the problem of describing an appropriate operational boundary between Caesar’s domain and that of God. Throughout the decades under review, it was a matter of continuing debate, but one in which the authors engage only tentatively.

If, as the authors suggest, a major objective of those promoting the new Social Christianity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was to recapture from the secular world the church’s traditional position of primacy in social reform, its position in the early years of the century might hardly be considered radical. What must be inferred from the narrative set out is that, influenced by an enlightened middle-class, the driving force of social reform was to remain voluntarism, now re-fuelled by an enlightened Christian commitment, and piloted by a new clergy, one both trained in the arts of evangelism and schooled in the sciences of sociology and social work. However, intervention in Caesar’s affairs seen from a dominating middle-class perspective as socialistic, was to remain for the most part abjured.

Equally unsatisfying is the apparent failure to recognize that within constituencies as widely dispersed as those of the Protestant churches, when fitting faith to the realities of significantly different social and economic conditions, it was inevitable that there would emerge different views as to the meaning of the Christian Orb itself. One notes the ready acceptance by the authors of the deprecation expressed by church officers concerning the departure of prominent dissidents from what is put forward as the accepted position of the denomination.

It may be noted, too, that without exception the dissidents named resided and even received their theological training in the West. It is curious that in recording and commenting on their apparent defections, little consideration is given to the circumstances that might have worked to make this so. It might well be argued that while their actions did contemplate a significant expansion both in the circumference and content of the Orb, their dissent reflected no greater culpability than being the considered pastoral reactions of men of firmly held Christian conviction to the peculiar needs and conditions of their region.

The defecting pastors were moving from within the context of their own history. At the turn of the century, the story of western settlement beyond the valley of the Red River extended back little more than thirty years. Then and throughout most of the ensuing four decades, a substantial majority of the people of the west lived on the land, engaged in farming. They were no strangers to the ways of public policies and government intervention. It could even be said that the society within which they lived and worked was the creature of such policies and interventions: land distribution under the terms of the Homestead Act; settlement and its associated ethnic patterns reflecting a strong influence of immigration policies and practices; dependence on the ribbons of steel that were laid down under railway policies and designed to hold the country together; not the least subjection to what the westerner regarded as predatory national tariff policies that held them hostage in favor of “eastern interests.” The history of the farm movements from their earliest days makes it clear that the western farmer was most unlikely to feel that he owed anything to the middle class and its business elite beyond his trials and tribulations.

By the end of the nineteenth century, the farmers had organized with a view to seeking remedies for their difficulties. By the end of the first decade of the twentieth they had framed their Bill of Rights and marched, supported by some of their eastern counterparts, on Ottawa to confront the national government. The Agrarian Revolt, driven largely by the western farm organizations was under way. The temper of what emerged from all of this is described by Professor W. L. Morton as “a comprehensive programme which, put into effect, would have reshaped the development of the Canadian economy.”

Nor should all of this be regarded as being quite apart from the twentieth century evolution of a conception of Social Christianity. Among those leading the farmers’ thrust were a number who carried impeccable Protestant credentials. The President of the Manitoba farm movement over much of its early activist period was Rev. R. C. Henders, an ordained minister of the Methodist Church. Possibly the most prominent and influential leader of the western farm movement was Henry Wise Wood, a member of the Disciples of Christ. Of Wood, his biographer has written, “It was from this church that he derived much of his belief in the social message of Christianity.” Room should be made in any roll call for another of the disaffected ministers of the Gospel, the spellbinding orator and skilled pamphleteer of the western progressive movement, William Irvine. A close companion and supporter of J. S. Woodsworth throughout the years in and out of the Canadian House of Commons, he had been, like William Ivens and A. E. Smith, a pupil and continuing friend of Salem Bland. It is strange that in all of this, Bland, who did so much to light the fires that consumed the prairie dissidents, escapes from this study with little more than passing mention. Together, Irvine and Bland were early tribunes of a social gospel that would be, in the closing years of the four decades under review, presented in more specific terms in the Manifesto of the League for Social Reconstruction.

Without further labouring the point, the authors while giving attention to developments in the West’s major urban centre, Winnipeg, indicate some lack of appreciation of the implications for the Social Gospel as interpreted in the stirrings of the rural west What must be taken as their summary reference to the roles played by Bland and Woodsworth in the prairie farm awakening may hardly be taken at face value. The judgement is rendered, essentially in vacuo, that they “blithely advocated the introduction of urban modes of thinking to the culturally impoverished districts of Western Canada.” Neither Woodsworth or Bland (or Irvine who joined with them in their efforts) were strangers to the farms, the farmers, or their farm organizations. Both were frequent contributors of columns published in the Grain Growers’ Guide, the official organ of the western farm movement. They were much sought after speakers for major farm organization gatherings. To the extent that there was any coupling of rural and urban concerns in the messages delivered, these had less to do with “urban modes of thinking” whatever that might have been, than with linking together the lots of farmers and urban workers as common victims of the interests managing a predatory economic system, a condition best responded to by joining in common cause.

The sought after linkage was brought nearer to reality in 1933, with the formation of a new political party, led by Woodsworth and avowedly owing much of its philosophy to his vision of an activist Social Gospel. By the middle of this last decade, its representatives were seated in the House of Commons, drawn chiefly as might be expected from western Canada.

Nor was the activist flame lit by the prairie farmers without its counterpart, if burning less fiercely, in the life of western urban communities. The centre of the conflagration was the city of Winnipeg in 1919. While the General Strike of that year appears to loom large in the authors’ concern for the maintenance of denominational integrity, surprisingly little effort is shown in exploring the realities of the event, or, from the point of view of the Methodist Church, its outcomes. An appreciable element of the local clergy now in company with the city’s dominant business elite, and the Church’s Department of Evangelism and Social Service drawing obviously upon intelligence provided by these sources, accepted their cries of apprehended violence if not revolution. It is puzzling that the authors, in reviewing the course of the dispute, show little curiosity about decisions made or judgements rendered at various levels of the church organization, and even less about their longer run impact.

As part of the fall-out from the Winnipeg strike, note must be made, too, of Beatrice Brigden’s departure from the service of the Methodist Church. In the work under review, her name looms large as one of the earliest of the travelling lecturers appointed to the staff of the Methodist Church’s Department of Evangelism and Social Service, charged with carrying the message of the new Social Christianity across the Dominion. Although it was not likely intended by the authors to be so, when examined, Beatrice’s experience over the better part of a decade of her life shows both the seen possibilities and the realized limitations of the movement as it is set forth here. Part of their problem is that Beatrice, as presented here, is a fictitious person, introduced as one whose “family prosperous printing establishment had raised it out of the working class to middle class comfort” and one “who claimed an identity with ordinary Canadians.” In dealing with her departure from her years of service in the cause of a regenerated Methodism they state “her departure was occasioned by frustration that her social purity work was not leading to ordination.” Both statements cast doubt on the thoroughness of the research on which they are based.

A substantial holding of Miss Brigden’s papers, including a biographical sketch deposited by Beatrice herself, are held by the Public Archives of Manitoba, revealing on both counts a substantially different story. What she shared with the Brigdens of Winnipeg was nothing more than a family name. Nor were the formative years of her life spent as a member of. Winnipeg’s middle-class business elite. Born to a farm family in Hastings County Ontario, she lived from age one year and a half until graduation from high school as a farmer’s daughter in rural southwestern Manitoba. As for the imputation of any middle-class upbringing, her memoir and her files indicate that she resembled more the “ordinary Canadian” the authors presumed her to be desirous of emulating. Sarah Wood Brigden, her mother and the one she sought most to emulate traced her lineage through a Quaker family of long-standing. From the beginning, the essence of Quakerism was built into Beatrice’s religious beliefs. Her father William was both an ardent Methodist and a western agrarian activist. Added to this was the external influence of the young Methodist circuit rider whose charges included Purple Hills Methodist, the Brigden’s home church while living in rural Manitoba. James Shaver Woodsworth not only gave time to the Epworth League in which Beatrice was an active member, he also became a frequenter of the Brigden household—one given, according to Beatrice, to mixing political discussion in equal proportions with food at the dinner table. Woodsworth was to be a life-long friend, perhaps even an icon, to Beatrice for the remainder of his life, and one who did much to influence the shaping of Beatrice’s views on the subject of Christian social responsibility. In the matters of trade unionism, the labor church, and socialism, her views seldom departed from his.

As with Woodsworth, Ivens and Smith, she held to a different, unsettling and openly pro-labour position in opposition to that taken by her church. Her dismay at what she regarded as a betrayal of their commitment to the cause of labor and trade unionism was at the root of a growing discontent with the church and her role in it. The capstone to all of this was the treatment meted out by the Manitoba Conference to Ivens, and even more particularly, to A. E. Smith. Beatrice and her family, now resident in Brandon, were active members of First Methodist, the church to which Smith came as pastor in 1915. Beatrice was caught up in Smith’s vision of a special Christian inspired mission to the working community, and became supportive of his venture. The rejection of Smith’s application by Conference at a meeting attended by Beatrice and her father, a church elder, completed her feelings of disillusion and led quickly to her resignation from her position in the Methodist Church, and even from the church itself. To declare, as the authors have done, that her resignation was prompted simply by dissatisfaction with her inability to secure ordination, while serving to relieve the church officers of responsibility in the matter, finds no support in her own files. Here, one is led to suspect that rather than argument following from fact, fact is adduced according to the requirements of argument.

A similar suspicion grows from the earlier, rather curious denigration of Woodsworth that, taken in the total context of the book, appears as almost a considered preamble to its earlier chapters. Brief, selected quotations, with no reference to their context, are offered to counter what the authors hold out to be “the myth that Woodsworth had studiously cultivated himself as a lone prophetic progressive,” but who was really only one “continuously carping about the confining rules and regulations of the church.” Readily available, extensive biographical material concerning Woodsworth makes it difficult, if not impossible to accept this portrayal as being other than a caricature and as such hardly deserving of a rejoinder.

In reviewing the course of events of the forty years under consideration, and the responses of the churches and church leaders selected to portray the emergence of the Protestants full-orbed Christianity, one might have expected a more rigorous analysis of the changing forces at work: in the theology and praxis of the new Social Christianity (a.k.a. in this study as Scientific Christianity and Muscular Christianity). Rather, one is left with a portrayal of positions taken and defenses offered, for the greater part by some holding positions in the upper reaches of certain church hierarchies. The result is the production of a volume marked much more by polemics than analysis.

Page revised: 13 October 2012

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